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Striving to Make Teachers, Education Better

Jordan Lanfair '11

By Adriana Colindres

Jordan Lanfair '11Still nearly a year away from receiving his bachelor's degree, Jordan Lanfair '11 already is an old hand at research. His experience should serve him well as he embarks on a year-long Honors project this fall.

After his sophomore year, the Chicago native completed a project through the Ronald E. McNair Program, which encourages first-generation and other eligible college students to prepare for graduate school and consider academic careers. He observed schools in a large, metropolitan area and a small town, examining how teachers deal with and instruct students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

"A lot of instructors worked very well. They cared," said Lanfair, who is double-majoring in elementary education and language, pedagogy, and culture. "Others, not so well." A big part of a teacher's job, he concluded, is to "keep kids safe . . . and show them how a well-put-together individual handles his or her life."

Lanfair stressed how crucial that can be for many low-income students and students of color. "Often, their teacher is the one pillar of consistency and emotional stability that they might have," he said.

As a senior, Lanfair will build on his past research to pursue an Honors project that analyzes the way Galesburg schoolchildren respond to a new academic enrichment program dubbed Project GEM-Galesburg Enrichment Mentoring. The program will bring together Knox College students, George Washington Gale Scholars at Galesburg High School, and local elementary school students to participate in "Junior Great Books," an introduction to the in-depth study of classic works of literature. Knox College students applied for and received a $35,000 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board in February 2010 to launch the program.

Lanfair's Honors project will involve studying the schoolchildren who participate in Project GEM to determine whether their attitudes toward education change as they go through the program, which includes mentoring from Knox College students. He will pay particular attention to students of color, students who are English-language learners, and students from low-income backgrounds.

Lanfair's interest in his research topic is rooted in personal experience. "I grew up poor. I grew up in public schools that were underserved by teachers," he said. "I want to do something about it."

Stephen Schroth, assistant professor of educational studies, said Lanfair's work is important because almost half of the students in public elementary and high schools come from diverse backgrounds, yet the teaching force "is still overwhelmingly Caucasian." "To serve students effectively," Schroth added, "we need to focus upon what they think, how they think they are going to be able to negotiate the system, to help them understand some of the opportunities that are available through pursuing education."

Lanfair plans on a career in education, and he hopes to play a role in improving teacher quality. One of his long-term goals is to obtain a master's degree that will allow him to collaborate with other teachers so they can become more effective in the classroom. "When (teachers) work with kids, we change lives 30 people at a time," Lanfair said. "If you can reach other teachers, you're doing it 30, 60, 90, 120 at a time."

Lanfair has been president of Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (ABLE) for two years and received the ADE Scholarship, which is given annually to a student who has demonstrated a commitment to social diversity. He recently was named a recipient of the Maureen Tanning Nyman Memorial Scholarship, a prestigious award in educational studies that provides two tuition-remission scholarships annually to Knox students who plan to be elementary school teachers and who come from low-income backgrounds.

"It's a really cool, big deal," said Schroth, who expects Lanfair to thrive in his chosen profession. "Jordan certainly is one of the more intelligent students I've ever taught," Schroth said. "What is amazing about him is his work ethic and drive. He really has a sort of burning desire to learn and to work and research and write."